The word "praxis," uncommon to Western ears, marks an important divide among Marxist scholars and is at the center of a major battle over human rights and academic freedom in Eastern Europe. The emphasis on "praxis" signals a recognition of the creative aspects of human life, of the fact that human beings can, through theoretical understanding and human and social effort, affect progressive change. The term, along with its negative counterpart, human alienation, was the hallmark of the early writings of Marx.
It is not, however, an emphasis which all Marxists greet with equal enthusiasm. To some it is seen as a way to reject the scientific character of Marxism, to downgrade the importance of the dialectic and what it is supposed to tell us about the course of human history and future events.
This seemingly academic issue has been the source of a bitter 12-year conflict in Yugoslavia which has resulted in the dismissal of seven of that country's most eminent philosophy professors, all from the University of Belgrade.
The situation is complex. However, it concerns the role of worker-management and control of factories and other work places, the privileged position of the communist bureaucracy, and the sporadic resurgence of sectional nationalism. Another important feature is the uneven economic development that has occurred in a country that was formed by fusing together a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire with a part of the old Ottoman Turkish empire.
The conflict in Yugoslavia does not have the high drama of Iran, Korea, El Salvador, or Poland, but it is nonetheless a lesson in the slow yet relentless methods that a bureaucracy can use to stifle dissent. The parties to the conflict involve not only the faculty of one of the country's major universities but trade union members, local officials, and national officers, including the late President Tito himself. The fact that Yugoslavia is itself a society twice born in revolution and dissent (first against the Germans, and then against the domination of the Soviets) adds a tragic irony to the episode.
Yugoslavia has always been a society that takes its intellectuals seriously. During World War II and immediately after, cadres of young, spirited revolutionary intellectuals were sent into the rural areas to explain the cause of the resistance and the ideals of the new society to the peasants. One member of such a cadre was Mihailo Markovic. Markovic was also a partisan fighter under Tito, and his career is but one example of the commitment that he and his colleagues have to Yugoslavia.
Yet Markovic and six of his colleagues on the faculty of philosophy at the University of Belgrade were recently dismissed from their research positions. Markovic's passport was confiscated and his freedom to travel lost.
All this followed a series of events that changed the structure of the governance of Yugoslavia universities and, in the opinion of many, violated the federal Yugoslavia and local Serbian constitutions.
The conflict can be traced back to 1964 when the philosophical journal Praxis was started as an instrument of "humanistic Marxism" to address issues in Marxist philosophy and problems in Yugoslav society. The journal was critical of various features of Yugoslav society: the special privilege of the party, the development of a managerial elite which was seen as usurping the decisonmaking prerogatives of workers, and the uneven development of different segments and regions of Yugoslav society. Some contributors were also troubled by the fact that planning on the national level did not allow for democratic participation, and that market considerations had replaced concerns of equity in decisions about the production and distribution of goods. During the early years Praxis was officially tolerated by the party. But this fortunate period began to change with the student uprisings that occured throughout the country in 1968.
While the Western countries were having their own problems with student protests in France, the United States and elsewhere, they had little time to notice that similar events were taking place in Yugoslavia. However, protests in that country were so severe (the University of Belgrade was closed for seven days) that President Tito was forced to appear on national television and concede the justness of the student demands for reform. He promised to rectify the problems or to resign. However, the problems were not rectified and Tito did not resign. Four years later, again through the national media, Tito focused attention on the Belgrade group to the teachings of Marx, Tito charged that students were no longer being taught the basic principles of Marxist philosophy. With this cry for "a return to the basics," party officials in Serbia began to seek the removal of the seven professors from their posts.
At this point the government escalated the conflict by altering the long standing self-governing structure of the university. With new legislation in place, the seven were relieved of their teaching responsibilities in January of 1975. They were allowed to continue their research and to retain their salaries , but without any increase from the 1974 level.
All official means for them to influence scholarship and opinion within the country were closed. However, the seven continued to have an impact outside of the country, their situation has been closely monitored by concerned scholars throughout the West, and major academic associations have protested it.
Within the last few years, a new journal, Praxis International, has been established. it is to be published in Oxford, England, with Markovic as one of the two senior editors and vigorous Yugoslav participation. But the removal of the seven from their research positions and the restrictions placed on Markovic's travel have raised great concern about the level of Yugoslav participation.
Many conservatives who tend to see communism as a monolith, ever encroaching upon the freedom of the West, have come to admire the fierce courage and independence of Yugoslavia and its people. For the radical left in the West, Yugoslavia has presented a new model for socialism and an alternative to many of the disturbing features of Soviet society. Yet events in the ecademy cast an unfortunate shadow on the special place occupied by Yugoslavia, and one can only hope that that country, born in dissent, will not continue to deny this very right of free expression to its own citizens.